DEFCON Dining: Niko Niko's

I didn't grill on Memorial Day. I spent the day celebrating a family member's birthday, in an apartment too small for the extended gathering it held. There was only cake to eat. By the time the festivities were over, the entire family was grumbling with hunger, too irritable and exhaustion-bound to consider cooking something for ourselves.

We ran down a list of the usual suspects, settled on a few, then realized it was Monday. I hate Mondays, not because it's the first day of a long work week, but because we so frequently decide to eat out on Mondays, only to be stymied by an entire industry seemingly taking the day off at once. I've got a grand plan to open a restaurant in my spare time, with the only service being on Monday. Captive audiences are great.

This Monday, my kids settled on pasta. A quick jaunt down the road found us at Pronto Cucinino, my daughter gazing with wonder at the rotisserie. I was gazing with despair at the menu. I actually kind of like Pronto Cucinino, in its own way. This time, however, nothing on the menu looked even remotely good to me. It was hot, I was tired and not particularly hungry, and everything was covered with sauce or cheese, and usually both. It just seemed too heavy, too "bleh."

I mentioned this to my wife. She sighed. It was I who had recommended this particular restaurant, after all. Then, my eldest began complaining that her stomach hurt, and we made for the door.

At this point -- indecisive adult diners coupled with general tiredness and a child complaining of potential illness -- we were firmly in DEFCON Dining territory, hovering between a three and a two on the scale. I tried to cut our losses, but everyone protested when I suggested that we just go home and have sandwiches, so I put a couple of options on the table. I don't remember what the other one was, but Niko Niko's won.

I used to like the place. Granted, we went tired, not in very good moods, and in search of something decidedly against the grain of this Greek American diner-food haunt. If I was looking for something lighter, I was probably in the wrong place. Still, the food all seemed kind of like an afterthought. It was heavy and dull, with none of the sprightliness I remember from Niko Niko's.

My keftedes had none of the light texture and herbal punch for which I love that dish, tasting instead like any old meatball - heavy, dense, and murky-flavored. Even the tzatziki was bland. The dish, usually defined by tangy yogurt, pungent garlic, tart lemon juice, and gentle spikes of dill, was rendered as a tasteless white glop. The greek salads that sided our entrées were predictably boring; semi-crisp iceberg lettuce mixed with semi-fresh rings of red onion, a too heavily seasoned dressing (nothing needs that much dried oregano), and a disappointingly one-note hunk of salty feta.

The best dish of the night was an appetizer that we ordered as my kids' dinner. Pita Quesadillas sounds like a throwaway mishmash of a dish, but was actually quite tasty. Triangles of pita bread sandwich stringy melted cheese and gyro meat, comingled with a sprightly pesto-like sauce that I couldn't quite figure out before my daughter snatched her meal back from my greedy clutches. I did, however, get to keep the tangy-spicy sauce - a sort of sriracha spiked tartar sauce - served on the side, as it was too hot for her taste. It helped to perk up the otherwise ignorable keftedes.

Despite the lackluster meal, Niko Niko's was a good choice. They had coloring books for the kids, a lovely patio, and enough noise to drown out the occasional over-eager conversation. They also had no tables open with more than two seats. That meant that my wife and I got to occupy one blessedly adult table, while my kids basked in the luxury of their own space a few feet away. Never underestimate the power of a kids' table in making a dinner feel slightly more restorative. No elbows in the ribs, no drinks spilled onto your plate, and the opportunity to hold a conversation largely uninterrupted. Even though we were largely too tired to have much of a conversation, it was nice to know we could.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall